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Reaching out with art from death row in San Quentin, California – By Nicola White

Reaching out with art from death row in San Quentin, California – By Nicola White

Art is the journey of a free soul”
Alev Oguz, Turkish Artist

The aim of the Art Reach project is to give men on death row in the United States the opportunity to express themselves with their own art, something all human beings should be free to do.

I have always felt a need to create. So much so, that after 25 years working in a very corporate world, I have finally given in my notice to pursue my dream of being an artist. It was not an easy decision by any means, letting go of years of certainty and security, but personally, it was essential. The sense that time was passing me by and that I was feeling unable to express myself creatively in my workplace was the catalyst for change. I am fortunate enough to have been able to choose to leave my current situation to pursue my artwork, unlike the prisoners on death row in San Quentin, California. It is highly unlikely that they will ever be freed from their incarceration. Expression through art however, can take their minds and imaginations on a liberating journey as they create a painting or drawing, or write stories and poems.

Art Reach, which aims to enable inmates on San Quentin’s death row to be able to express themselves creatively, developed following my own written correspondence with a prisoner over several years. I was put in touch with the prisoner through the charity Lifelines, which finds pen friends for prisoners incarcerated in the US on death row.

In April 2015 I visited the US to meet him. There is an air of bleakness and despair which emanates from the prison and the visiting room itself is magnolia, cold and sterile. Yet my pen friend has frequently sent me beautiful hand-made cards created by his fellow inmates. During our visit, he told me about inmates who spend hours in their cells each day painting and drawing pictures, most of which are then packaged up and stored. I thought this to be a tragedy.

Apart from just the need to create, there is also for me a desire to share my creations with others in some way. Art Reach is a travelling exhibition, taking place in London, comprising art and poems from San Quentin death row with the sole aim of enabling the artists to reach out with their art to connect with the outside world.

When I first sent my pen friend a series of flyers to distribute among inmates, I had not expected such a huge response. I have since heard from well over 15 men, all keen to participate. One man sent me a picture influenced by the fact that he has not seen his mother for nearly 20 years. Another paints pictures of tropical fish and birds with such vibrant colours that you would not believe that he lives in a world in which the closest thing to a parrot he will ever see is a feral pigeon. My pen friend told me that he has not seen the moon for over 10 years, yet he can paint a space ship and can write a poem about visiting the moon.

Prison art is an expression of the human spirit and imagination, just as barbed wire, gun towers and steel bars serve as daily reminders of lost freedom, privacy and human dignity.”
Larry Brewster, University of San Francisco

These prisoners have committed crimes against society and so why should they deserve to have the opportunity to share their artwork? Most of the men involved in the project have been on death row for over 30 years and they are paying for their crimes by their incarceration away from society forever, all the while under the shadow of imminent execution. Although no amount of remorse can erase the devastating effects of the crimes committed by some of these men, many of them are vastly different people now than they were when they entered the prison. One inmate who went in when he was 18 and is now 54, expresses himself through poetry and prose and has, in his own words “evolved on death row from a high school drop-out into an accomplished writer and student of the humanities.”

Art Therapy provides a non-verbal opportunity for inmates to re-label themselves and gain a healthier sense of self.  It provides them with an opportunity to re-establish an identity above that of inmate”
David Gussak, Florida State University Department of Art Education

Of course, art therapy in prisons is often used in part to serve a rehabilitative role, to prepare prisoners for their release back into society as functional people. My understanding is that the death row inmates at San Quentin are generally unable to participate in such formal arts programmes which are run in the other part of the prison, separate from the condemned. Art and creative expression is just as valuable to them in so many ways. The men involved in Art Reach have been stripped of everything, including their identity, and I have received letters from them telling of their happiness and enthusiasm in being able to prepare for an exhibition.

There are currently approximately 750 inmates awaiting execution on San Quentin’s death row, who spend the large majority of their time in 4 ½ ft x 11ft cells. Regardless of views on the death penalty, the artwork and poems provide an insight into the minds of men who are incarcerated there. Visual expressions of emotions are evident. Inspiration, regrets, happiness, sadness, yearnings, longings…  From a place known for death and despair, beautiful art with hope for life can emanate.

In June the first exhibition will be held at the Made in Greenwich gallery in London and plans are underway for the exhibition to be displayed at Warwick University in October. Proceeds from sales will partly go to Amicus, a legal charity which helps provide representation for those facing the death penalty in the USA, and partly to provide art materials to the participating artists on death row in San Quentin.

What I am particularly struck by, is that men who live in the proverbial limbo, that stark neon-lit artificial world of incarceration, and who barely see daylight for more than a few hours a day, could draw upon resources and produce such material. It truly shows that creativity through art is one of our most base and irrepressible instincts.

Art is the highest form of hope”
Gerhard Richter

An exhibition of work produced by inmates on death row in San Quentin, California, will be on display at the Made in Greenwich Gallery, London, from 24th June – 6th July 2016. Click here for more information.

Nicola White
Nicolamary.white@ntlworld.com